Ralph Remembers:
Bill Walton - The Clipper Years
By Ralph Lawler

May 13, 1979 … “BILL WALTON A CLIPPER.” An airplane carried the banner message high in the sky above Mission Bay on the San Diego coast.

I learned of this possibility a few days earlier while driving home from a daily racquetball match with San Diego Clipper head coach Gene Shue. He said: “I think we have Walton.”

I almost drove off the road.

Bill Walton was the best player in basketball. He won a championship in 1977 and was league MVP in 1978. To this day, I think it was the biggest free agent signing in the history of the sport and I make no apologies to any of the players who fanned last summer’s free agent frenzy. He was a winner. He was just 26 years old. This young San Diego team was suddenly on the NBA map. They had surprised everyone by winning 43 games in their first season after winning only 27 the season before in Buffalo. And now, they had added Walton and were looking forward to a full season of ABA star Brian Taylor. Wow. The fact that Bill was San Diego born and raised was just “icing on the cake.”

(Photo by Peter Read Miller/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

Walton signed a seven-year, $7-million contract with owner Irv Levin. It was the biggest contract in the history of the league to that date. He was the game’s first million dollar a year player and nobody doubted that he was worth every penny of it.

The team held a well-attended news conference at the San Diego Sports Arena to formally announce the signing. It was an exciting day for everyone in the organization. I emceed the event and sat with Bill in the lounge afterwards.

He apologized that he had to leave early by matter-of-factly telling me: “I have to go to the hospital to have surgery to have some bone chips removed from my ankle.” I almost passed out!

The other foot was yet to fall. Rules were different in those days. NBA Commissioner Larry O’Brien had the role of determining compensation to the Portland Trailblazers for the loss of free-agent Walton. The Clippers knew of that going in and expected to lose one of their two centers – Swen Nater or Kevin Kunnert -- and maybe promising backup shooting guard Freeman Williams who had led the nation in scoring two years earlier while at Portland State.

That proved to be wishful thinking. The Commissioner stripped the Clipper roster by taking power forward Kermit Washington, former all-star Randy Smith, Kunnert, a first round draft pick and cash. Washington was thought to be the perfect match with Walton, who had won a championship with Maurice Lucas at his side in Portland. Smith was one of the league’s best backcourt players and had been All-Star Game MVP just a year and a half earlier. Kunnert was a highly respected big man.

The compensation announcement was a crushing disappointment. Still, weeks later, with Bill seemingly fully recovered from the relatively routine ankle procedure, the Clippers and their curious and cautious legion of fans felt optimistic. As training camp approached, the new Clipper center looked to be 100 percent ready to resume his brilliant career.

Bill was, in fact, healthy and ready to go as training camp opened in September of 1979 on the campus of the University of San Diego. Despite the heavy toll of compensation for Walton, the team and the league expected big things from this Clipper team that won 43 games a season earlier before adding the game’s top player. The basketball leery San Diego fan base was cautiously excited about the team’s second season in San Diego. The team averaged just over 7,000 fans a game in its first year, but crowds were robust in the final months as the team stayed in the playoff hunt until the final game of the year.

Now, with Walton -- the sky was the limit. Bill looked a little rusty in the opening preseason game. He had not played in a game in almost 19 months. On Sept. 27, 1979, Walton and the upstart Clippers played their second exhibition game in Orange County against the Los Angeles Lakers. It was not your ordinary preseason game. It was the two greatest UCLA centers of all-time – Bill Walton vs. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

It was also an early look at the Lakers number one draft pick, a long and gangly point guard named Earvin “Magic” Johnson. The Clippers had star power of their own in the form of World B. Free, who had been All-NBA Second Team the year before while averaging 30 points a game. It was the promising team from the sleepy Navy town down South against the big city-slickers who were covetous of their Southern California turf. It was also a preview of opening night. ABC Television had picked the Lakers at the Clippers in San Diego to debut their season-long network coverage of NBA Basketball.

Seven thousand and five hundred fans filled the small Orange County College gymnasium to see this battle of the Bruin behemoths.

They walked away shaking their heads. The Clippers dominated the Lakers 104-95 with Walton outplaying Kareem at every turn. Bill out-scored his older counterpart 17-13, out-rebounded him 13-8 and dramatically blocked two of his “unstoppable” sky-hooks. The War was on. The stage was set for Opening Night on the national TV stage. Or so it seemed.

Ralph with Walton in San Diego

Almost overlooked was the fact the same two teams were to meet the following night in San Diego. It was drama of a different sort on that night as Walton went down with a foot injury nine minutes into the game’s opening quarter. It was not believed to be serious and there was hope that the big center would be ready for the opener against the Lakers on October 12. The “Walton Watch” was on for the next two weeks. Even on game day, there was hope that Bill would play in the opener.

It was not to be. The foot was not right and Walton regrettably told club owner Levin and coach Shue that he would not be able to play in the opener.

But what an opener it was even without the highly touted Kareem-Walton matchup. Brent Musberger and ABC Television were on hand. The game was nationally televised all right, but the league was held in such low esteem by television in 1979 that it was shown on tape delay at 11:30 p.m. Those who stayed up late and the 8,500 fans in the stands had quite a treat. The Clippers jumped out to a 15-point lead in the first half. Free was sensational en route to a 46-point opener. However, as Magic Johnson grew accustomed to the moment, the Lakers mounted a comeback. The Clippers still led 102-101 with two seconds to go. Don Ford inbounded the ball for the Lakers to Jabbar who caught it in the foul circle, faked left, turned right and sank a 17-foot sky-hook as the buzzer sounded. The game ended Lakers 103, Clippers 102 with the youthfully exuberant Johnson leaping joyfully into the startled arms of the nonchalant Kareem.

The Walton watch continued day-by-day and week-by-week. He was finally diagnosed with a fracture of the navicular bone in his left foot. It was thought his career might be over. He worked hard in rehab. He would bicycle whenever possible. Riding his beloved bike at the San Diego Velodrome was a favored pastime and a means of staying in shape. It even led him to thinking of resuming his career in late January of 1980.

Just two weeks after having the cast removed from his injured foot, Walton was declared ready to play on January 29, 1980 vs. the Phoenix Suns in San Diego. A larger than usual crowd showed up in excited expectation. Walton replaced Nater at center with 1:44 to go in the first quarter. The hometown crowd gave him the most heart-warming standing ovation and welcome I’d ever seen. I get goose bumps to this day just thinking about it.

He would play just 15 minutes but contributed eight points, four rebounds, an assist and a blocked shot in a rousing 133-121 Clipper victory. The team was flirting with a .500 record and play-off hopes were very much alive. Coach Shue was limited to using Walton in five minute bursts. It was frustrating for the coach. Just about the time the player got warmed up and into the flow of the game, it was time to take him out. The comeback experiment would last only 14 games. Walton went down again. Free followed and at the end of an exasperating season, Shue would leave to return to the Washington Bullets. The season saw the Clippers lose 17 of their final 23 games. As a footnote to Walton’s continued on-court prowess, his 36 minutes per game averages in those 14 games projected to an impressive 20.7 points, 13.5 rebounds and four blocked shots per game.

Walton training at the velodrome

Sadly though, it looked like Bill Walton’s career was now over. He would not play a game during the next two seasons. He was preparing for a career change by attending law school at Stanford. Oddly, by the eve of the 1982-83 season, he began to feel better and entertained thoughts of yet another comeback to the game he so loved. He went to training camp with the Clippers in Yuma under head coach Paul Silas.

A system was devised where Bill would be a weekend warrior for the Clippers. He would continue his law studies at Stanford Monday through Friday and play with the Clippers on weekend games. General Manager Pete Babcock and Silas spent half their time with flight guides trying to plot a means of transporting Walton from point A to point B. The results were mixed. Walton did average a near double-double in about 22-minutes a game but the team struggled adjusting to having him one night and then not having him for the next several games. It was not a cohesive plan. The Clippers finished with a record of 25 wins and 57 losses.

Bill was ready to devote his full attention to basketball again in the fall of 1983. He was encouraged by his ability to hold up though an abbreviated schedule the year before.

It was to be the Clippers final year in San Diego. Jim Lynam had replaced Silas as head coach. Bill would manage to play in 55 of the team’s 82 games. Despite the presence of Terry Cummings, Norm Nixon, Derek Smith, James Donaldson and Ricky Pierce, Walton’s appearances were not enough to make the team a winner. The final tally in San Diego was 30 wins and 52 losses. Bill believes his foot injuries were the root cause of the San Diego Clippers’ relocation to Los Angeles in 1984.

“The biggest failure of my professional life,” Walton told the Sacramento Bee in February, 2011. “It’s the truth. If I had been able to play, the Clippers would have been a vibrant team, a dynamic team, would have had a new arena in my hometown, San Diego.”

Likely true. For certain, that team could have competed for several championships and yes, the NBA might have finally survived in San Diego, a city that has seen two NBA and one ABA team come and go. Walton would play just one season for the Clippers in Los Angeles. It was the inaugural 1984-85 season at the old L.A. Sports Arena. He played a then career-high 67 games while averaging over 10 points and nine rebounds a game. He was not the Walton of old and knew he never would be again. He was also 32 years of age and desperate to compete for another championship.

He asked the Clippers to move him to a contending team. The Lakers passed on Walton because of his injury history, but the Boston Celtics were interested. A trade was worked out with Bill going to Boston in exchange for Cedric Maxwell and a first round draft pick. It was “Magic” for Walton and the Celtics. He played a career-high 80 games and won Sixth Man Of The Year honors while being a vital cog in Boston’s 1986 NBA Championship. Bill Walton was a champion once more.

That was pretty much it. He would play only 10 more games over two more seasons in Boston. His body was spent and he retired in 1988 as the age of 35. He had given his body to play the game he’d loved since he was in fourth grade.

But life would go on. Next up: Bill Walton – Life after basketball.

  • Related: Part one: The Early Years | Catching up with Bill Walton